The Life of a Conservacion Patagonica Volunteer: Some Reflections

Katie Heineman, from Los Angeles, joined our volunteer program for six weeks in February and March. She shared some of her impressions on living and working in the Chacabuco Valley.  We found this a fantastic overview of what it’s actually like to come volunteer with Conservacion Patagonica.  So thanks to Katie for letting us post this!

Katie on the summit of Tamangito, near the future park headquarters.

In the world of outdoor retail, many shop employees find themselves gearing customers up for vacations that they can only dream about taking. Posters of remote destinations adorn our break rooms.  In company catalogs, shots of adventurers at the ends of the Earth sell the clothing.  Those of us working at the store drool and ache with the desire to pack up and start adventuring ourselves.

Last year, I sat in my university’s movie theater watching what I expected to be just another surf or climbing film.  But 180 Degrees South overflowed with images and landscapes that inspired me to do what I had helped countless customers do: pack up and go. The moment the movie ended, I made up my mind that I would leave my job and head south to Patagonia to help with the creation of the future Patagonia National Park.

Confluence of the Baker and Chacabuco Rivers

After two flights and an 8 hour bus ride, I stepped outside into Chilean Patagonia, right at the confluence of the Rio Baker and Rio Chacabuco. It seemed surreal to be standing in such a peaceful place, knowing it may  soon be dammed to produce energy for cities far, far away.  During the drive into the park, the theme song to Jurassic Park popped into my head immediately as we passed guanaco chewing at grasses along the road. I could not believe how open and unrestricted the land was.  I imagined what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark in the United States when they first came upon wild lands untouched by modern development.

Some of 2011 volunteers

The volunteers were a mix of Chileans and United States-ians (all “Americans” of one type or another!).  Although I had taken one Spanish class in college, I had only ever learned the present-tense—and it had been years since I had spoken any.  Quickly, I realized this would be the best Spanish class I could ever take. The Chilean volunteers were so patient with me as I stumbled through sentences. Luckily, there were many things we could share that transcended language: music, games and dancing. Many nights were spent dancing the traditional Chilean queca and learning the intricacies of Patagonian chamame from some of the local Chilean workers.

Dancing lessons at the puesto base camp, in the eastern sector of the future park

Each week we would be taken to a different part of the expansive park to work in the field for 5 days.  My first two weeks were spent at the base of a beautiful mountain called Tamangito.  We camped out along a creek and hiked up the mountain each day to a fence-line that used to keep livestock within the ranch boundaries.  Now that the land is being returned to its natural state, hundreds of miles of fences need to be removed to allow wildlife to migrate and forage.  As we rolled wire and barbed wire into rolls and wedged posts from their holes, we came across the carcass of a guanaco that had been caught in the fence.

Wildlife and ranch fencing = not a happy combination. Luckily for future guanacos, the volunteer crews are hard at work.

It began to sink in how important our work was in the creation of a national park.  The fence also separated two small populations of Huemul deer, an endangered species that would now have the opportunity to meet and potentially reproduce.  Although the work was challenging at times, I would often pause to look out at the valley below and the snow-capped peaks in the distance; a truly spectacular work environment.

One weekend, we were lucky enough to attend the nearby town of Cochrane’s annual Costumbriste, a festival honoring the customs and culture of the region.  I got to witness my first rodeo, sheep shearing, and drink a delicious cup of navegado (a mulled wine-type drink).  The whole town seemed to be in attendance and young and old danced into the wee hours of the morning.

Rodeo action--featuring many Conservacion Patagonica staff--at the Cochrane Encuentro Costumbriste.

After 2 weeks of removing fences, we switched to seed collecting.  When the land was used for cattle and sheep grazing, many areas were over-grazed, leaving some places barren without any remaining grasses.  Our task was to collect native coiron (bunch grass) seeds that would later be spread onto deteriorated areas.  Each day we would pull seeds from the plants and place them into bags.

A beautiful day for collecting seeds

The weather was hot with very little wind and not a cloud in the sky–making for perfect views of San Lorenzo, the second tallest peak in Patagonia.  On one of our days off in the field, a group of us decided to hike to a distant mesa. It was such an adventure to navigate our way through the forest and over rock to this untouched vista.

My last 2 weeks at the estancia were spent close to the Argentine border at a puesto called La Juanina near the base of a volcano-looking mountain known as El Portas.  Our group had grown to about 14 volunteers and each night we would cook and eat together around a big table by candlelight. It was really magical to feel such a strong community with people from all different walks of life and parts of the world.

We spent the days removing exotic, invasive plant species in order for the native grasses and wildflowers to proliferate.  Some of the plants had to be removed from the root and others could just be hacked at the base. I felt such a sense of accomplishment each time I would lift a pickaxe into the air, swinging toward the ground to end the life of an invasive plant.

They may be pretty, but they are bad news--taking out exotic species.

Six weeks flew by faster than I could have imagined. When it came time to leave the estancia, I realized how unique an experience I had enjoyed. I was able to help with the formation of a national park that will contribute significantly to the conservation of vital ecosystems.  I was lucky enough to work in stunningly beautiful landscapes every day. I made friends and began to learn a new language. Most meaningfully, I formed a connection to the land, the people, and the culture of Patagonia.

Last week I returned home and visited my old outdoor shop.  On the wall there was a poster of a familiar Patagonian landscape. I realized I had come full circle: from the one longing to adventure to the one returning home with stories to inspire others to experience (and help protect) wild places.

–Katie Heineman

3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Life of a Conservacion Patagonica Volunteer: Some Reflections

  1. Pingback: March and April Newsletter from the future Patagonia National Park | Conservacion Patagonica

  2. Pablo Donoso

    Hi Katie,
    Beautiful experience, great writing!
    Here in Chile, most of people are against the damns in Patagonia, next week the government will announce the environmental resolution that may allow it’s installation. So, many of us, that day will march in Santiago and others cities to protest against this, made out of dark procedures and against the will of majorities.

  3. Anya

    Hi Katie. Your blog gave me chills. I was a volunteer at the park in December 2009 through early February 2010. Oh how I miss Patagonia! Thanks for the reminder of one of the most meaningful times of my life.
    I feel connected with each and every current and past volunteer. We have all helped protect a land that truly is a wonderful treasure on Earth.

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